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Rita claims first victims; rains cause new flooding in New Orleans

PORT ARTHUR, Texas—A mass killer long before its core drilled ashore, Hurricane Rita assaulted a vast swath of the Gulf Coast early Saturday. Its torrential rain, towering storm surge and destructive winds again inundated parts of New Orleans and threatened to swamp key oil refineries.

Rita's first victims—24 elderly or infirm evacuees—died not from water, not from wind, but from fire. Flames killed them in what they thought was the safety of a bus carrying them away from a Houston suburb—and from danger.

Other people hundreds of miles from the coast—including many evacuees seeking refuge —also confronted grave risk:

Rita was predicted to linger for days over northeast Texas, western Louisiana and Arkansas, pouring 25 inches of rain and generating perilous inland floods.

The core appeared to be targeting the Texas-Louisiana state line and points inland.

Another natural disaster was in the making Saturday morning—the second in fewer than four weeks.

"If you see this Social Security number on a body, it's mine," said Norma Kirk, 64, a resident of Port Arthur, directly in the storm's path. She wrote the number on her arm before police showed up just ahead of the storm to take her to safety.

Officials said Rita could destroy 6,000 homes, affect 1.8 million households and inflict more than $8 billion in damage—in Texas alone.

"Keep this state in your prayers," said Gov. Rick Perry.

About 450 miles away, water spilled over at least one levee and floods returned to parts of devastated New Orleans. Many neighborhoods severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29 also caught a wet slap from Rita, though few people had returned. Water 8 feet deep covered streets and seeped into houses in the impoverished Lower Ninth Ward, the Arabi and Chalmette neighborhoods and elsewhere.

"It's like a repeat; it's just sad," said Tracey Jordan, who sat in a shelter in Lafayette, La., and watched TV footage of his Ninth Ward neighborhood flooding again.

Portions of Gulfport and other Mississippi towns also endured new floods, and forecasters warned points as far as Alabama to expect the same.

Still, Rita aimed its worst at the Texas-Louisiana border, east of Galveston and Houston and west of New Orleans.

On both sides of the state line, shelter space, food and gasoline vanished.

Desperate evacuees and holdouts with sudden second thoughts sought refuge anywhere they could—some moved into sturdy school buildings and other makeshift shelters, some pitched tents in rest stops of upstate roads, some retreated to anywhere they could.

"We were going to stay, but the eye is coming too close to us," said Ronnie Gibbs of Lake Charles, La., deciding to hustle his family to Baton Rouge, La. "We are going to take a big hit."

The state line isn't densely populated, though many small cities at or near the coast—Port Arthur and Beaumont in Texas and Lake Charles, Cameron and Abbeville in Louisiana—sat shuttered, as those who defied evacuation orders shuddered.

"Unfortunately, they're on their own," said Port Arthur police officer Rocky Bridges.

In addition, four large oil refineries stand in that area and 12 others are nearby. Hundreds of oil rigs stood between Rita and the coast. More shortages of gasoline and natural gas supplies seemed certain, as did more price increases.

The storm was immense. Rita's spiral bands of wind and rain pounded the coast throughout the day and night, heralding the pre-dawn arrival of the eye wall and sustained winds that could reach 115 mph.

Rita's hurricane winds stretched 85 miles in most directions and could retain their power 100 miles inland; its tropical storm-force winds extended 205 miles from the center; its rain field reached even farther.

Though its top winds weakened a bit during the day, this hurricane still had it all and a lot of it, especially storm surge that could inundate low-lying portions of the coast with 15 feet of seawater and kill anyone within reach.

"This is the tsunami effect," said Jack Colley, Texas' emergency-operations coordinator.

But the primary measure of a storm's cost is counted in human lives, and the toll began horribly.

Authorities said the 24 elderly and infirm evacuees from the Houston area perished when the bus that was carrying them burned to a blackened shell on Interstate 45 south of Dallas.

The blaze, which may have started in the brake system, was accelerated by the patients' oxygen tanks, some of which exploded. The deaths came despite frantic rescue efforts by sheriff's deputies.

"I can't remember one this bad," said Sgt. Don Peritz, a spokesman for the Dallas County Sheriff's Department.

The tragedy intensified monumental traffic jams.

Nearly everyone who left the coast seemed to have made it inland, but many remained stranded and scattered around Texas, searching for gasoline, food and, in some cases, medical attention.

At one point, huge military cargo airplanes flew 1,300 people out of the Beaumont-Port Arthur area, many from local hospitals, nursing homes and private residences. Many of those evacuees were critically ill, attached to respirators and intravenous tubes.

Perry, the Texas governor, said 5 million people in his state will be directly affected by the storm. He acknowledged logistical problems but praised state and local officials.

"We have evacuated a historic amount of Texans," Perry said. "There are a number of people whose lives are going to be saved."

But, as always, some people in vulnerable areas insisted on staying. About 500 holdouts remained in Port Arthur, a bayside shipping and oil-refinery city of 57,000. Others were found in Beaumont, also an oil-refining center.

"I know it sounds stupid, but I'm just going to stay here and ride it out, do the best I can," said Earl M. Ricardo, 58, a lifetime Beaumont resident who was riding his bicycle along Fourth Street, where empty plastic bottles blew down the street.

Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center near Miami, said the greatest initial danger came from storm surge.

Some islands, including Galveston, could get hit by floods coming and going—from the Gulf of Mexico as the center approaches and from bays as the storm leaves and water drains back out to sea.

But Mayfield emphasized that people well inland also had to maintain utmost vigilance.

Atmospheric steering currents were weakening and Rita was likely to hover over the region for three or more days.

Typically, inland flooding kills more people than any other hurricane-related danger.

"Rita is not going to be finished after landfall," Mayfield said. "Most often, people drive their cars through flooded-out roadways and get swept away to their deaths."

He also worried about environmental damage. The Beaumont-Port Arthur area that seemed most directly targeted by the storm is home to many refineries and related facilities.

"There are petrochemical facilities in those locations that are sure to be impacted," Mayfield said. "The strong winds will also test the building codes in the path of Rita."

Well before making landfall, Rita had disrupted delivery of gasoline to much of the nation.

Explorer Pipeline of Tulsa, Okla., whose pipelines provide 10 percent of the Midwest's gasoline, said its customers would get no gas for at least several days. Longhorn Pipeline, which flows into New Mexico and Arizona, also remained closed down.

Colonial Pipeline of Alpharetta, Ga., said it was forced into periodic shutdowns Friday because it was receiving reduced supplies from refiners. Colonial's network flows through the Southeast and mid-Atlantic regions. It expects to draw gasoline from other refiners over the next few days.

The Web site Rigzone.com, which tracks the offshore oil industry, warned that more than 1,200 offshore oil and natural gas rigs faced hurricane-force winds.

So do many refineries; 19 of 26 Texas refineries were closed Friday. Should they stay closed more than two weeks, gasoline prices nationwide could surge to more than $4 a gallon, analysts warned.

And so, as Rita arrived with nightfall, military officials mustered to deliver aid and comfort as soon as the storm passed, in marked contrast to the government's response after Katrina.

The much-criticized Federal Emergency Management Agency stockpiled relief supplies in staging areas and said hundreds of search and rescue teams were ready to roll.

At the Pentagon, Col. Kenneth C. Madden, the Army's deputy division chief for current operations, said an infantry brigade—about 3,000 soldiers—from the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, N.C., could arrive within seven hours of receiving orders.

Other resources on standby included helicopters and crews, engineers, truck drivers and communication specialists from the 1st Calvary Division and the Army's 3rd Corps at Fort Hood, Texas.

About 300 Texas National Guard troops in 150 vehicles began driving from San Antonio to Houston with food, water, ice and propane.

In New Orleans, 17,000 National Guard and active-duty troops remained in place, but soon some would do an about-face.

"We're going to attack the storm east to west," said Gen. John Basilica, deputy commander of Joint Task Force Pelican.

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(Douglas of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported from Port Arthur, Klepper from The Kansas City Star reported from Beaumont and Merzer of The Miami Herald reported from Washington.

Also contributing to this report were the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Steve Campbell in Baytown, John Cheves in Abbeville, La., Gordon Dickson in Fort Worth, Texas, Edwin Garcia in Beaumont, Leila Fadel in Houston, Bill Hanna in Port Arthur, Jan Jarvis and Bill Miller near Dallas, John Moritz in Austin, Texas, Tony Spangler with the National Guard, L. Lamor Williams in Huntsville, Texas; the St. Paul Pioneer Press' Alex Friedrich in Baton Rouge and Aron Kahn in San Antonio; The Charlotte Observer's Eric Frazier in Lake Charles; The Miami Herald's Audra D.S. Burch in Abbeville; the San Jose Mercury News' Katherine Corcoran in Lafayette; and the Washington Bureau's Susana Hayward in Texas City, Texas, and Drew Brown and Kevin G. Hall in Washington.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-RITA

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050923 RITA inland map, 20050923 RITA energy, 20050923 RITA path, 20050923 RITA county map, 20050923 Galveston seawall and 20050923 NOrleans politics

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